Agent Joanna Volpe On: Why Realistic Teen Dialogue Isn't Necessarily a Good Thing (and a Free Book Giveaway!)

If you want to write young adult fiction, you need to listen to teens, but not listen to them. Any questions? When it comes to writing YA, everyone focuses on voice. And they’re right. Voice is so, so important to pin down. And when trying to nail down that voice, there is a ton of advice out there on realistic teen dialogue.
Author:
Publish date:

Editor's note: I am declaring November 2010 to be "Agent Guest Column Month," and therefore, every weekday, I will be posting a guest column by a literary agent. Day 7: Today's guest agent is Joanna Volpe of Nancy Coffey Literary.

------------------


If you want to write young adult fiction, you need to listen to teens, but not listen to them. Any questions? When it comes to writing YA, everyone focuses on voice. And they’re right. Voice is so, so important to pin down. And when trying to nail down that voice, there is a ton of advice out there on realistic teen dialogue:

  • Sit in a coffee shop or mall and eavesdrop on teens
  • Ask your daughter/son/niece/neighbor/students what lingo is hot these days
  • Watch teen TV shows or movies
Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title


Joanna Stampfel-Volpe is an agent
with Nancy Coffey Literary. She is giving
away a free copy of The DUFF (a new YA
novel by her client, Kody Keplinger) to
one random, lucky commenter here.
Update: Jo picked a winner on 11-17-10.
It's Katherine R. -- Congrats!

Of course, these are good techniques for getting the sensibility of teens today, but do they lead to good dialogue? The answer is no. What works in an acted out scene doesn’t always translate well to the written word. If I were to write a scene with truly realistic teen dialog, it would go something like this:

“Hey Sara, what’s up?”
“Not much, you?”
“Not much,” I say as I BBM Michael. “I so hate Michael right now.”
“Ya,” Sara agrees. “Me, too.”
“I mean, he’s like, SUCH a jerk.”
“I knooooow,” Sara nods. “Totally.”
“Ugh,” I groan. Michael hasn’t answered. “I just hate him!”

And so on.

This would take 6-7 seconds if it were acted out. But reading it feels like 6 or 7 minutes. Ugh. Snore-fest, anyone? But this is reality. Which is why I’m here to tell you not to write realistic dialogue. Before you get angry and curse my name for throwing all of your research on YA voice into a tizzy, let me explain.

Listening to teens is equally as important as nailing that voice. By listening, you start to pick up on what they care about and how they react toward one another and why they say the things they say. Then you have to take all of that valuable research and incorporate it into a scene with heightened tension and conflict. You have to dramatize it. Make it interesting. Turn it into a story. And as long as you’ve been paying attention, the YA voice will come.

Image placeholder title

The quickest way to get an agent's attention
is a professional submission. That's why you need
Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, 3rd. Ed.

It has dozens of query letter examples (novels,
nonfiction, short stories, kids books and more).


Stationery vs. Stationary (Grammar Rules)

Stationary vs. Stationery (Grammar Rules)

Learn the differences of stationary and stationery on with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Erik Larson Quote

Liminal Spaces: A Profile of Erik Larson

WD gives a peek at the daily routine of Erik Larson and the writing process behind his bestselling narrative nonfiction in this Nov/Dec 2020 profile by Zachary Petit.

Jennifer Boresz Engelking: On Giving Readers a New Appreciation of History

Jennifer Boresz Engelking: On Giving Readers a New Appreciation of History

Debut author Jennifer Boresz Engelking discusses what led her to write her historical nonfiction book Hidden History of Lake County Ohio and how research gave her a new appreciation for her hometown.

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 19

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write an animal title poem.

Writer's Digest May/June 2021 Cover Reveal

Writer's Digest May/June 2021 Cover Reveal

Presenting the May/June 2021 issue of Writer's Digest featuring a collection of articles about how curiosity fuels writers, including the 23rd Annual 101 Best Websites for Writers and a new interview with Chris Bohjalian.

Through Another’s Eyes: An Auschwitz Survivor Inspires His Biographer

Through Another’s Eyes: An Auschwitz Survivor Inspires His Biographer

Popular lecturer and biographer Joshua M. Greene discusses the hardship of writing the biographies of Holocaust survivors, and the biography that convinced him to continue writing.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: The May/June 2021 Issue, a Chance at Publication, and more!

This week, we’re excited to announce that the May/June 2021 “Curiosity” issue is now live in the WD shop, there’s still time to have your From Our Reader’s response selected for publication in the July/August 2021 “Bravery” issue, and more!

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 18

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write an ekphrastic poem.

Personal Essay Awards

Announcing the First Annual Personal Essay Awards Winners

Congratulations to the winners of the first annual Writer's Digest Personal Essay Awards!